Saturday 12 July 2014

Brazilian State Championships: hope for the future?

The fourth round of beers was called for. As it tends to do in Brazil, talk inevitably filtered back to football. The past two days had seen lashings of rain pour down in Rio, as if the statue of Christ himself was weeping over the city, distraught at the humiliation of the country's 7-1 mauling by Germany.

In the small corner lanchonette where we drank however, the mood was less maudlin. Our friend Weberson, a carioca whom we had met through acquaintances in Sao Paulo, was our guide for the evening and we were to head into the party district, Lapa, for a Friday night of Brazilian partying.

We asked Weberson whether he thought Brazil would beat Holland in the next day's third/fourth place playoff. 'Honestly man, I don't care. I just don't want another humiliation like Germany. If we win, I'm happy, if we lose by one or two, I'm okay. Just not another seven!'

A little tongue-in-cheek perhaps, but the answer was revealing. The overriding sense in Brazil was that this game doesn't really matter. In fact, if anything, it just gave Brazil, the most successful nation in international football, a further chance for humiliation in a tournament wherein they have just suffered their most brutal chastening. But how did it come to this? How did a nation with such a rich tradition of producing aesthetic, successful footballers end up leaving its fans in fear of humiliation?

Brazil aren't in a crisis yet. They reached the semi-final of a World Cup. A semi-final of a tournament they were expected to win (a prediction that looked painfully optimistic in reflection), but they reached it nonetheless, which is more than most teams can say. Yet they are close to a precipice: the squad is talented, of course, but true world-class players are proving difficult to find and becoming harder to produce within their country. Think a samba-flavoured, yellow-tinged England, with more success. Only Neymar and Thiago Silva out of the current generation can truly be named among the best in the world in their position, a strange idea when you cast your mind back to team after team which oozed class in the 20th century and into the beginning of this one. 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2002... 2014. Something isn't quite right.

Like England, it can be argued that the reason for this lies in the national league system. The Brazilian league system is a confusing one: from May to December, the Campeonato Brasileiro takes place, the nation's flagship competition. From January to March (or even April in some cases) most teams play in nationwide State Championships. These competitions arose in the early part of the 20th century: travel between other states and cities was difficult due to the vast distances involved so the regional championships thrived instead. As time has gone on however, these championships have not been phased out but instead kept and played in conjunction with the national league system, meaning players have at most two months away from playing, if that. This can mean that players can play upwards of 60 or 70 games each season, leading to burnout and increased susceptibility to injuries. On a minor note, as the championships showcase local teams against each other, Serie A teams will pit their wits against Serie D teams, and sometimes even non-league teams, exposing a dearth of match quality.

I asked Weberson what he thought about the State Championships and whether they held any value. 'For me, no. They are bad for the big teams. The players get no rest.' And for the small teams? 'Better maybe, but still they are long for them too.'

My friend put it to him that they could be used as a youth or reserve competition for the bigger teams, enabling big clubs to give their youngsters a chance to play and the lower-division teams warm up games for their own season. 'Maybe, yeah. There should be something done about them for sure, but I don't know what.'

The idea of using the championships as a way to blood youngsters is a practice that has always been engaged with in Brazil, but making them exclusively a youth or reserve competition for bigger sides is an interesting idea. Regular competitive football would be a massive boost for the development of the players, and in time, the national team may be able to reap the rewards. The problem may arise when the older generation complain that the historical integrity of the competitions would be compromised, as they have done in the past when talk of jettisoning the competitions altogether has been mentioned, yet surely as time goes on younger fans will not feel as strongly about the issue.

Obviously, changing the format of the State Championships is not the only solution to Brazil's current problems, nor is it a surefire way to improve the fortunes of the national team. Clubs selling their brightest young talents abroad for large sums of money hasn't helped, and has definitely impacted on the progression of several players in recent years. Yet, the competitions remain an untapped source of potential, a way to improve the quality of young players that is already in place, and right in the eyeline of the football federation.

Brazil stands at a crossroads in regards to its football. The inquest into the sport in the country will be made, as it always is when a favourite nation turns in an underwhelming performance at an international tournament. Whether they will turn their attentions to the State Championships to aid them in their quest for improvement or abolish them instead is a question that remains to be answered. Maybe they will ignore them altogether. That would be a huge shame, as they could do a great deal to aid the country in getting back on track to producing the wonderful, exciting footballers of old. As Weberson said, something must be done about them. We just don't know what.

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